Last Election Day, after returning home from a long day of campaigning, I had seventeen messages on my answering machine. Unfortunately, only a few of the calls were personal, congratulating me on my re-election. Instead, I had a glut of pre-recorded calls from political candidates and their surrogates. These annoying and intrusive automated calls are the result of a campaign tactic known as “robocalling.” Though robocalls started as a useful strategy to inform voters about a candidate’s platform or as a friendly reminder to go to the polls, the practice has quickly spiraled into a race to blast registered voters with as many calls as possible.
On the days leading up to elections it is now common for voters to be assaulted with as many as 20 robocalls calls in one day. Voters and their families are harassed from morning to evening, interrupted at dinner, and even awoken at night.
Not only are these calls annoying, they are often misleading. One particularly pernicious tactic is for a candidate to turn voters against an opponent by placing robocalls in that opponent’s name at inappropriate times. Additionally, many robocalls do not identify the sponsoring candidate or group until the very end of the recording, often after an individual hangs up the phone. This deliberate practice in effect eliminates accountability and serves to confuse prospective voters.
Is the deluge of calls really necessary to get the message across? Should candidates have free reign to deceive and frustrate voters without being held responsible for the content of their recording?
I don’t think so and many in the State Legislature agree. That is why I introduced Assembly Bill 8550 which will place strict limitations on robocalls. A candidate will be limited to one call per day between the hours of 9 AM and 6 PM. To clarify who the call is from, a robocall’s phone number must be displayed for caller identification and the campaign that is calling must identify itself at the start of the message. These simple rules will go a long way to reduce voter frustration and increase campaign accountability.
Having run for office, I know the importance of allowing candidates to publicize their campaigns and to articulate their positions on issues that affect the community. In a functioning democracy, the candidates’ ability to educate voters is essential to ensure that residents make informed decisions at the polls. However, I am convinced that the practice of blasting the public with robocalls as often as possible does nothing to help voters decide or to motivate them to go to the polls. In fact, the barrage of robocalls may turn voters off from participating in elections altogether.
I believe that legislation to regulate robocalls will help the democratic process, allowing candidates to more effectively inform voters of their positions. Furthermore, families will be spared the constant harassment of phone calls from candidates at all hours of the day. Hopefully, next election season all of us will be able to enjoy peaceful, robocall-free dinners.
Joan L. Millman is the New York State Assemblymember from the 52nd District in Brooklyn representing the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, DUMBO, Fulton Ferry Landing, Gowanus, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and Vinegar Hill.